Way back in 1975, the Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe described Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an offensive and deplorable book that de-humanised African people by reducing them to little more than set-dressing for a story about the implosion of a single European mind. While the passage of forty years has allowed Conrad’s novella to be reclaimed and re-interpreted as a critique of European colonialism, Achebe’s criticisms stuck and so Conrad’s work remains an uncomfortable read that raises all sorts of pointed questions about the ways in which white people tend to fictionalise the colonial era. All of these questions are relevant when watching a film like Regis Wargnier’s Oscar-winning historical melodrama Indochine.
According to the candid making-of documentary included alongside the film, Wargnier explains how the film’s producer Eric Heumann first approached him with a sizeable budget and a plan to bring home an Oscar. The plan was to produce a French equivalent to the depictions of both the Antebellum South in Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind and the depiction of the British Raj in David Lean’s A Passage to India. Aside from their enormous successes at the Oscars, what unites these films is their willingness to deploy precisely the same kind of narrative techniques for which Achebe criticised Conrad: Set in times of brutal racist oppression, both A Passage to India and Gone with the Wind use the suffering of non-whites and the collapse of racist political regimes as set-dressing for stories about the emotional implosion of well-to-do white people. While Indochine can certainly be viewed as a film that follows in these deplorable footsteps, its muted emotional tones and moments of cynical ambivalence also hint at a politics that is both more subtle and engaged than those found in the average historical melodrama.
The film opens in 1930 with Catherine Deneuve’s Éliane Devries assuming guardianship of a young Vietnamese girl after the death of the child’s noble parents. While this peculiar family arrangement may smack of narrative conceit, it works quite nicely on a thematic level as Deneuve’s character represents a generation of French expats who inherited a set of colonialist institutions they had no hand in setting up. So, just as Éliane has parenthood thrust upon her by the death of her Vietnamese friends, her own mother’s death means that she is also forced to take control of the family’s rubber plantation and assume a role of colonial parent to hundreds of Vietnamese servants and employees. In a sense, Indochine is a film about Éliane’s parental failures and, by thematic extension, the failures of the French colonial state.
The film’s opening act is dominated by Éliane’s love-life and a love triangle involving both the head of the colonial police force (Jean Yanne) and a handsome young naval officer (Vincent Perez). Beautifully shot and imbued with precisely the kind of languid sensuality you’d expect from a story about beautiful white people discovering sex in a warm climate, the contortions of Éliane’s love life serve chiefly to conceal a growing sense of political unrest as the veneer of polite colonial society is slowly peeled back to reveal under-skilled land owners, over-stretched police, and a military more concerned with strutting about in pretty uniforms than actually keeping the peace.
Into this froth of sex and violence is brought Éliane’s adopted daughter Camille (Linh Dan Pham) who finds herself torn between the name and identity given to her by her adoptive French mother and those offered to her by the Vietnamese nobility into which she is expected to marry. The film’s frequent references to Camille and her school friends being the future of the colony makes it quite clear that the character’s crisis of identity mirrors that of the colony itself.
It is here that criticisms like those of Chinua Achebe begin to bite as while the film does critique colonial institutions and make it clear that the ascendant Camille represents the independent future of the country in the same way as the decadent Éliane represents its colonial past, the film does lavish attention on its white characters whilst allowing the Vietnamese characters to sit decoratively in the background where they provide a lot of thematic heft and little in the way of narrative agency.
Thankfully, the film’s second half does address these questions when a rapidly-maturing Camille falls in love with the handsome young naval officer thereby setting her on a collision course with her adopted-mother’s libido. Shamed by both the unwanted competition and the humiliation of her affair becoming public knowledge, Éliane has the naval officer sent to the darkest backwater in colonial Indochina and so loses not only her lover but also the respect of her adopted daughter. Desperate to leave home, Camille gets herself engaged to a childhood friend who is more interested in fermenting revolution than starting a family and uses her newfound freedom to set off in search of the naval officer.
As the film enters its final act, the institutions of French colonial rule enter terminal decline: The naval officer’s new posting turns out to be little more than working as a security guard for Vietnamese slavers while all attempts to find the renegade Camille end in failure as the colonial class slowly lose their grip on power. As one would expect from a film where the characters represent broad class interests, Camille finds herself radicalised by the failures of the French state and the successes of a revolutionary movement that is able to recognise and respect the interests of Vietnamese people. By the end of the film, Camille is referred to as a ‘Red Princess’ and winds up attending the peace talks that ended French rule over Vietnam but the film’s decision to keep the Vietnamese characters at arms’ length means that we never really get to see or appreciate the political awakening of Camille.
Indochine is a beautifully made and well-performed film that handles a difficult subject in both a progressive and sympathetic manner. However, while the film’s production values and ambitions may scream quality, there is no escaping the fact that this was a film about colonialism made by white people for the consumption of other white people. The writers and director do try their best to get beyond this limitation but the decision to use the Vietnamese characters thematically rather than narratively means that the film retains a cool, detached, and ultimately frustrating viewpoint that denies its subjects agency when it should be seeking to understand their actions.